Step by meticulous step, US law-enforcement and intelligence officials are chipping away at Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network.
Ramzi Binalshibh, believed to have been the original 20th hijacker last year and a key planner of those attacks, was arrested last week in Pakistan. Then, over the weekend, FBI officials broke up an Al Qaeda terrorist cell in upstate New York.
The arrests of Mr. Binalshibh and the five US citizens of Yemeni descent represent a breakthrough for law-enforcement officials. Binalshibh, who recently boasted of his role in the 9/11 attacks in an interview aired on the Qatar-based Al Jazeera television station, could help officials definitively piece together the steps the group took up to 9/11. He also could help identify other key players and their locations, including those in support cells in the US and those higher up in Al Qaeda.
"Let's just say things are still dynamic, still moving," says one intelligence official.
Although this represents a major step, the arrests also show how widely disbursed Al Qaeda's cells are, and highlight the threat they continue to pose.
At Camp David over the weekend, President Bush emphasized the US determination in stopping the group that launched the worst terror attack on the US in history. "One by one, we are hunting the killers down," he said. "We are relentless, we are strong, and we are not going to stop."
The breakthrough arrests also herald an unprecedented amount of cooperation among both US intelligence and law-enforcement agencies, and their foreign counterparts. "I've never seen it so good," says one senior law-enforcement official.
The number of arrests over the past year in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Indonesia, Singapore, several European countries, the Middle East, and here in the US have provided law-enforcement officials numerous ways to check and backcheck their information. Moreover, law-enforcement officials have collected computer hard drives, Al Qaeda training manuals and videos, and scores of address books and other lists that they can now cross-reference.
The arrest of Binalshibh took place this past Wednesday on the anniversary of 9/11. This happened soon after an article appeared in London's Sunday Times by Yosri Fouda, a reporter for Al Jazeera television, which later aired a video of Mr. Fouda's conversation with Binalshibh and another high-level Al Qaeda operative, Khalid Sheikh Mohamed.
Fouda said that he was contacted by Binalshibh in June, by cellphone and fax. He was later led by one of Binalshibh's comrades blindfolded and through a complex route to an apartment in Karachi, Pakistan.
Binalshibh's phone number, in fact, had also turned up in German raids on a group in Duisburg linked to the April bombing of a synagogue in Tunisia in which 16 Germans died.
A Yemeni by birth, Binalshibh grew up in the eastern province of Hadramaut, where Osama bin Laden's father was born and which is known as a hotbed of Islamic extremism. He also is believed to have taken part in the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in the port of Aden, in which 17 Americans died.
Binalshibh is the only one known to have attended two Al Qaeda planning meetings for 9/11 one in Spain in July 2001 and one in Kuala Lumpur in January 2000. That, investigators are hoping, will lead them to other Al Qaeda members both abroad and in the US.
Law-enforcement officials have said for some time that they knew there were several support cells here in the US. Indeed, there had to have been for the 9/11 hijackers to be able to plan what they did.
"There may be about 50 cells in the United States," says Rohan Gunaratna, a specialist on terror at the Center for the Study of Terrorism at St. Andrews University in Scotland. "Most of these cells actually support terrorists. They are in charge of propaganda, recruitment, fundraising, procurement, and shipping."
The five arrests on Saturday in upstate New York were the biggest attempt at breaking up support cells so far. Yet recent weeks have seen other developments, too. Officials have charged another man of trying to help Al Qaeda set up a terrorist training camp in Bly, Ore., and three other men in Detroit for acting as a "sleeper cell."
The five men in New York Shafal Mosed, Faysal Galab, Sahim Alwan, Yasein Taher, and Yahya Goba lived in the Buffalo suburb of Lackawanna. They are charged with material support to a terrorist organization.
"We do not fully know the intentions of those who were charged today, and our investigation is continuing," FBI Director Robert Mueller said on Saturday in announcing the arrests.
The men allegedly attended the Farouk training camp near Kandahar, Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden personally made a speech to rally his troops. Another American also attended that Al Qaeda camp John Walker Lindh. In July, Mr. Lindh pleaded guilty to fighting for the Taliban and agreed to cooperate with the government by providing information about Al Qaeda and other groups in southern Asia.
Investigators are counting on this kind of cooperation from those prosecuted, as well as those in custody, to lead them to even more members of Al Qaeda.
"You will see more arrests," says Dr. Gunaratna, who recently published "Inside Al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror." "The US before 9/11 rarely worked with security and intelligence services in southern Asia and the Middle East. They now have very good cooperation."