Americans On Alert

The car, a rented Chrysler 300, was the last in line to come off the boat from Victoria, British Columbia, at the ferry terminal in Port Angeles, Wash. When a U.S. Customs inspector started asking some routine questions, the driver appeared nervous. Lying on the car seat was an itinerary, the Customs inspector noticed, showing that the driver was traveling from Vancouver to Seattle. That seemed odd: the man was taking a very roundabout route through a remote port town. The inspector, Diana Dean, asked the man to step out of the car. When he refused, she called for backup help and looked in the trunk of the car. Nothing there but a knapsack. But in the wheel well she found the ingredients, it appeared, of several bombs. "We have a problem here, sir," she said.

A big problem. The full dimensions may not be understood until the new millennium arrives, but the Dec. 14 incident at the border increased concerns among U.S. intelligence officials that terrorists are planning to strike around the world over New Year's weekend. The authorities are worrying not only about murky terrorist rings but domestic militiamen and unstable loners. The warnings may be an over-reaction, a symptom of millennial jitteriness - if a Y2K meltdown doesn't get us, the terrorists will - but there is no doubt that the U.S. intelligence community is in a state of heightened alert.

The real name of the man, who tried to flee and was tackled after a six-block chase, is Ahmed Ressam, 32. Algerian-born, he was traveling under a false Canadian passport and two false Canadian driver's licenses (under two different names, but showing the same photo). Authorities say he had tourist maps of the Pacific Northwest and California in his pocket, and two ferry-ticket stubs, leading investigators to believe that he had a confederate who walked off the ferry and escaped. Further inquiry revealed that he was planning to spend the night of Dec. 14 at a hotel in Seattle - not far from the Space Needle, where thousands of revelers will gather on New Year's Eve - and that he had a plane ticket to London the next day. The FBI suspects that he was a "mule" delivering a bomb to be placed by other terrorists. The contents of his trunk were truly lethal: four sophisticated timing devices - circuit boards attached to 9-volt batteries and Casio watches; 118 pounds of urea, a chemical mixed in explosives; 14 pounds of sulfates, used to stabilize bombs, and 2 large jars of nitroglycerin. The timing devices were similar to detonators used in the terror bombing of the World Trade Center by Islamic extremists in 1993.

Federal authorities worry that Ressam is part of an international plot, the outlines of which remain vague, but nonetheless ominous. They say he has ties to an Algerian extremist group, and the CIA believes that he may be linked as well to Osama bin Laden, the wealthy Saudi businessman indicted last August in the 1998 bombing of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Bin Laden, who is now living in Afghanistan as a "guest" of the fundamentalist Taliban militia, has declared a holy war and hopes to inspire Muslims to kill Americans everywhere. Various terrorist groups or "cells" around the world declare allegiance to bin Laden, though it is difficult to know if he truly controls them or merely inspires them with his incendiary rhetoric and infusions of money. In Jordan earlier this month, police broke up a terrorist plot by Islamic extremists planning to kill Americans and Israelis on the eve of the millennium. "The group arrested is linked to and acted under the direction of Osama bin Laden," according to a classified counterterrorism communique, sent to FBI field offices last week, NEWSWEEK has learned. In hedged and general terms, the document went on to say "the Central Intelligence Agency speculates that Osama bin Laden and associates could be planning five to 15 other similar attacks worldwide." Some U.S. intelligence officials caution that public celebrations in Paris, London and especially Jerusalem may be targets for terrorists.

The ties between the terror groups are shadowy but intriguing. Bin Laden's clearest connection is to the plot broken up in Jordan early in December. The 13 men arrested there had ties to Egyptian and Algerian terrorist groups. According to the FBI and Jordanian officials, they were planning to kill Americans and Israelis visiting Mount Nebo, where Moses is said to have first seen the Promised Land, and at a spot along the Jordan River, where, according to Scripture, Jesus once walked. Documents seized in the arrest suggested that the terrorists planned to use "improvised explosives and poisons." An FBI source speculated that the "poisons" were toxins to contaminate the water supply and some kind of poison-gas grenades. A few days after the bust, Pakistani authorities arrested Khalil al-Diq, who, investigators believe, acted as an intermediary between the Islamic militants and bin Laden. Al-Diq is a dual U.S.-Jordanian citizen who has traveled freely in the United States. The FBI believes that, in 1992, he planned but failed to blow up a Masonic lodge in Los Angeles. Al-Diq has also fought alongside Islamic extremists in Bosnia and allegedly has ties to Egyptian and Algerian terror groups.

The Algerian connection may prove to be significant. NEWSWEEK has learned from Canadian police sources that Ahmed Ressam, the man arrested last week in Washington, is directly tied to a cell of a well-known Algerian extremist group, Armed Islamic Group (GIA). Ressam roomed in Montreal for a time with Said Atmani, the leader of a gang that allegedly stole laptops and cell phones out of cars and fenced the goods on the street in front of Islamic mosques. Early in 1999, Atmani was extradited to Paris in connection with the investigation of the Paris subway bombings by the Algerian GIA in 1995-96. Ressam was denied refugee status in Canada in 1998 because authorities believed him to be a member of the same Algerian extremist group.

Intelligence sources would not specify why they believe Ressam is connected to bin Laden. But the Saudi seems to fear that he could be the target of an American commando raid any day now. According to the FBI counterterrorism document, bin Laden recently warned his followers to be on the alert and relayed a message from the Taliban supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar: "Any Arab in Afghanistan should be free to fire on anyone who comes into his house." American authorities aren't quite as panicked. But warnings were flying around U.S. law-enforcement agencies last week, not just about bin Laden but over random madmen and turn-of-the-millennium chaos, including rioting at the border in the event of a Y2K blackout in Mexico. "There's a fear that we're being stalked all over the world," says Bruce Hoffman, director of the Washington office of Rand Corp., the think tank. "Eventually, that becomes xenophobia." Collective, paralyzing paranoia - the true triumph of terrorism - could be a mark of the next millennium.