American counterterrorism experts have been hunting Osama bin Laden for years. They have spent millions of dollars, countless man-hours and considerable diplomatic capital in order to track down the mastermind blamed, indirectly or directly, for terrorist incidents ranging from last fall's suicide attack on the USS Cole to the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Africa. Last week CIA Director George Tenet told the Senate Intelligence Committee that bin Laden's global terror network is "the most immediate and serious threat" to U.S. national security.
So it may seem more than a little strange that, only a few weeks before Tenet's testimony, a NEWSWEEK reporter sat down with one of bin Laden's alleged associates in the comfort of a London hotel coffee shop. Yasser el-Sirri, a slight wiry man with a full beard, was genial and relaxed. He openly boasted that the Egyptian government had sentenced him to death for various crimes of terrorism. He denied U.S. charges that he raised money and recruited operatives for bin Laden, but he cheerfully confirmed that he was close to some of bin Laden's most feared henchmen. And he admitted that he has recently received--and made public through an entity he operates called the Islamic Observation Center--messages from "people who are close" to bin Laden.
Yasser el-Sirri is only one of several bin Laden associates who hides in plain sight, openly working to support a holy war against America. Intelligence services often prefer to keep suspects out in the open, where they can be watched, rather than driving them underground. And it is true, as America's top spies have long proclaimed, that we rarely hear about their victories--the terrorist attacks quietly thwarted by close coordination between the United States and its allies. Still, bin Laden's fast-moving international network seems to be outpacing international efforts to destroy it. There is an uneasy feeling in the upper levels of the U.S. government that the threat posed by bin Laden is growing--and coming ever closer to home.
Intelligence officials tell NEWSWEEK that they believe bin Laden, the Saudi billionaire who is thought to be hiding out somewhere in Afghanistan, could strike at any time. The real question is where: since its formation in the early '90s, bin Laden's Al Qaeda group has recruited terrorist cells in countries all through the Middle East and North Africa--and possibly in East Asia, Europe and North America. "You break up a cell, and another one grows. This is [no longer] one man. If Osama bin Laden were to fall off a cliff in Afghanistan, we would all cheer, but his organization would still be in place," says a senior U.S. official. "From his perspective, he's got a 100-year program. He's probably eight years into it... and you can't expect to get too far in the first 10 years. But he's consolidating Afghanistan. He's fighting a war in Chechnya that has bled the Russians, and now they're making inroads in the Philippines and Indonesia, and here." Lately bin Laden seems to be forging ties with Palestinian terrorists. A U.S. official told NEWSWEEK that U.S. intelligence recently has picked up indications that bin Laden's Al Qaeda has been trying to increase its influence and contacts not only with Lebanon's Hizbullah but with two radical Palestinian groups that operate inside Israel and the occupied territories, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Last year, according to U.S. intelligence sources, Israeli security forces "broke up" an Al Qaeda cell on the Gaza Strip. U.S. officials fear the election of hard-liner Ariel Sharon as prime minister of Israel could heighten the terrorist threat not just against Israelis, but against Americans. "Does [Sharon] in and of himself get the extremists excited?" says a senior U.S. official. "Yes, he does."
With the collapse of the Middle East peace process and the end of Bill Clinton's intense diplomatic involvement, the Bush administration had hoped to be able to step back from the troubled region. But events may dictate otherwise. By the end of the month, Secretary of State Colin Powell will be traveling all through the Middle East, with stops scheduled in Kuwait, Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Powell has been critical of the Clinton administration's handling of Mideast issues and has hinted he will take a new approach. But when it comes to fighting terrorism, administration officials say the United States has no new initiatives to offer. Top antiterrorism officials in the U.S. government tell NEWSWEEK that Bush and his lieutenants have yet to put forth a counterterrorism plan. So far at least, the Bush team has kept on Clinton's counterterrorism czar, Richard Clarke.
Bin Laden is a slippery foe. He runs a loose alliance of semiautonomous cells and raises money through innocent-seeming front organizations. Even close surveillance sometimes fails to head off an attack. According to U.S. intelligence sources, two years before the bombing of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the CIA and National Security Agency began bugging five telephones used by members of the suspected Al Qaeda cell in Kenya. The FBI actually hauled one of the suspects, Wadih el-Hage, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Lebanon who had lived in Texas and managed some of bin Laden's business interests, in for questioning. Why didn't the spooks and gumshoes uncover the bombing plot? Because the suspects were smart enough to speak cryptically, using pseudonyms and code words, say U.S. officials.
Bin Laden's communications network is getting tougher to crack. He is using powerful encryption devices that can be bought on the open market. According to some reports, he has gone online to send coded maps and signals to his followers through Web sites that offer their regular customers pornography and sports news. He is adept at using front organizations to move and launder money. Some of those fronts may be in the United States. In Minneapolis, the FBI and Immigration and Naturalization Service are investigating a wave of large money transfers overseas by recent Somali immigrants to the area. According to a report on the investigation published last November by the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Somali immigrants have sent as much as $75 million out of the United States at a rate of roughly $2 million to $4 million a month. NEWSWEEK has learned that U.S. investigators now believe that some of that money is going to a radical Islamic movement called Al-Ittihad that has ties to bin Laden's Al Qaeda group.
The wide-open United States is not hard to infiltrate. One of the prosecution's likely witnesses in the embassy-bombing trial now taking place in New York City, Ali Mohamed, came to America in the 1980s and managed to enlist in the U.S. Army. Rising to the rank of sergeant, he was assigned to the ultrasensitive Special Forces base at Fort Bragg, N.C., where he instructed elite commando units on Islamic politics and culture. He was, it now appears, already working for Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which has close ties to Al Qaeda. After leaving the Army, he took his know-how to Afghanistan, where he began training bin Laden's men in explosives. Soon he was helping to set up a terrorist cell in Nairobi. He has testified that he brought pictures of the American Embassy to bin Laden, who "pointed to where a truck could go as a suicide bomber."
The American intelligence community is heavily dependent on foreign security services to watch and sometimes nab terrorists. Some police states, like Egypt, have ruthlessly efficient counterterror operations. The British government is soon to start enforcing a new law aimed at curbing foreign organizations that raise money and recruit in Britain. Still, U.S. officials complain that their allies too often lack skill or zeal. On the eve of the millennium, U.S. Customs officials intercepted an Islamic militant slipping across the border from Canada equipped with the makings for several good-size bombs. American officials were miffed to learn that the suspect, Ahmed Ressam, and several of his alleged co-conspirators had been under surveillance--but then lost--by Canadian authorities. (Ressam, who has been indicted on nine felony counts, has pleaded not guilty to all charges.) Another of Ressam's roommates was arrested but then released by police in Dublin, Ireland. FBI officials accused the Irish police of bungling the case. A NEWSWEEK reporter recently spoke to the suspect, who was still living at an address in south Dublin. The suspect, believed by U.S. intelligence officials to play an important role in an Islamic extremist "node" operating out of the Irish capital, hung up when the reporter refused to disclose how he had obtained the suspect's phone number. But Yasser el-Sirri, chatting in London, seemed unconcerned about getting arrested. He insisted that all his work in Britain disseminating information from various militant Islamist groups is transparent. "Everything is overt," he said. Among the bin Laden associates he acknowledges knowing is Ayman al-Zawahiri, a fellow Egyptian Islamist leader with a listing on Egypt's "most wanted" Web site. U.S. authorities say Zawahiri is coleader of Al Qaeda. "He's a good guy, a very nice guy," says el-Sirri.
The growing availability of weapons of mass destruction has added urgency and an element of real dread to the terrorist threat. The government's first witness in the embassy-bombing trial last week alleged that bin Laden and his associates once tried to buy uranium for $1.5 million from some Sudanese black marketers. U.S. prosecutors also allege that at "various times" since 1992 bin Laden and a top associate have tried to purchase components to build a nuclear weapon. It is not at all clear that bin Laden has the technical expertise or the resources to fashion the ultimate terrorist bomb. But some experts caution that the terrorist kingpin could fairly easily build a so-called dirty bomb, a conventional weapon that would shower lethal radioactive material over a wide area. The ingredients of such a bomb--or an equally fearsome biological or chemical weapon--may be for sale on the international black market. Stopping bin Laden from buying--and using--such weapons will take a coordinated and global effort.